Originally Published: September 9, 2018 9:18 p.m.
Sandbags line the edges of residential streets in Yarnell. Some sit in neat rows in front of doorways or along fence lines. Others lie strewn about in deep channels at the edge of roadways, spilling sand from shredded burlap sacks.
Severe rainstorms and the aftereffects of the Tenderfoot Hill Fire have caused water, mud and debris to wash from the hills on the east side of town and across Highway 89 in amounts that required closing off one lane of the highway while Arizona Department of Transportation workers cleared the roadway during the nighttime hours of Aug. 22.
Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office and Public Works staff responded within an hour of the flooding in this small unincorporated town of about 650, located 35 miles southwest of Prescott.
Development Services staff arrived on the scene by 7 a.m. to look at possible damage to structures, said Dave Williams, director of Development Services.
This and other storms prompted a community meeting Aug. 29 at the Community Presbyterian Church. While residents praised the response of Yavapai County Flood Control, Development Services and Public Works departments’ staff when requested to come look at the damage, they are generally unhappy with the county’s lack of action.
More than 60 people from Yarnell and nearby Peeples Valley attended the meeting at which several county department heads listened to residents’ concerns and questions.
Two storms swept through the town — Aug. 16 and Aug. 21 — said Terry Donaldson, Yarnell resident, whose ditch in front of his driveway became too deep to navigate.
“We had 4 inches in 45 minutes on Aug. 16, and it washed out terribly. Then last Tuesday, we had 4 inches in an hour and 45 minutes,” he said.
Donaldson has since placed large rocks and pieces of broken concrete to create a bridge of sorts to drive his vehicle onto his property. He said a culvert along Highway 89 overflows and excess water travels down his street, Shrine Drive, and into neighbors’ yards and houses.
“The people at the county are very nice. They come out and look, but they don’t do anything,” he said. “In my opinion, the county has done nothing other than putting a Band-Aid on something that needs surgery.”
Yavapai County Supervisor Rowle Simmons said at the meeting that he drove around the area. Part of the problem, he said, may stem from property on the east side of the highway that had been donated for a park site and had some work done on it before the owners had changed their minds.
The county has provided about $26,000 in assistance and cleaning up debris to Yarnell since July 1, said Public Works Assistant Director Roger McCormick.
In addition, county supervisors, on Sept. 5, approved a $99,538 contract with Atkins North America for design services relating to Yarnell’s flooding impact from the Tenderfoot Hill Fire.
“The highway floods in that area because of the lack of vegetation on the mountain and hills on the east side of the highway due to the fire a couple of years ago,” said Ryan Harding, ADOT public information officer, in an email Sept. 7.
“When heavy rains come to the area, there’s nothing to really hold back the water, and it picks up a lot of loose sediment and debris and takes it down to the road. State Route 89 is a pass-through area for the water with the higher elevation on the east side of the highway and lower elevation on the west side,” Harding said.
When it rains in Yarnell, ADOT crews are on alert and respond quickly, he added.
Williams said his department and Public Works are responsible for doing damage assessment, while Emergency Management employees locate resources such as hotel rooms for evacuees, if needed.
The county maintains the rights of way along streets, so with issues of plugged culverts and channels, “We’re the guys you need to talk to,” McCormick said, adding that the county spent about $200,000 on several improvement projects to the roadways in the past few years.
Runoff from the Tenderfoot Hill Fire area appears to be improving, but not at the rate hoped for, said Lynn Whitman, director of Flood Control. The contract with Atkins North America covers a study of the area, identification of potential solutions, and the design of a chosen solution.
“The engineer at Atkins is the same engineer that studied the drainage in the area after the Yarnell Hill Fire to help us identify potential post-fire flooding issues, so she is already familiar with the drainage in the area and can hit the ground running,” Whitman said.
In addition, all three county departments are meeting with Frances Lechner, president of the Yarnell Area Resource Group, Sept. 11 in Yarnell to discuss the needs of the community. Following that meeting, county personnel will meet with individual homeowners.
“We have also heard from ADOT, and they have expressed an interest in working with us to resolve drainage issues in the area,” Whitman added.
Two days after the Aug. 29 meeting, four crews from Development Services arrived in Yarnell to help homeowners clear mud and debris and clean up their properties.
Margaret Semler had no rental insurance when water flooded the house in which she and her children lived. She said she lost 50 percent of her personal property and has since moved in with a friend.
County staff left aerial maps with a plea for residents to circle problems areas and offer any suggestions for solutions. To one resident’s request to build retention basins rather than putting in more culverts, Whitman said, “We love retention ponds, but there’s just not enough land.”
Wendy Rausch, co-owner of Hill Top Realty, said she was concerned about the boulders that wash down from the Tenderfoot Fire hillside onto Hope Way and down to the highway where her office is located. After her parking lot and landscaping washed away in the first flood, she and her husband ordered 27 tons of dirt, hoping that would create a wall and soak up rainwater.
“The waterway runs behind the office and under the highway. It overflowed with 2 feet of mud. The landscaping washed away,” Rausch said. “The dirt washed away. We asked ADOT for our dirt back and they refused. We paid for that dirt; it was not free.”
Donna McFadden, resident since 1999, said she placed railroad ties in the ground with rebar stakes and saw them floating “like toothpicks.”
Another resident questioned whether the culverts under the highway are adequate to carry the amount of water that comes from monsoon rainstorms. He would like to see the problem fixed upstream and also for the planting of vegetation on the fire-damaged hillside.
Whitman said she had looked into hydro-seeding after the Tenderfoot Fire, but unfortunately, most of the property is privately owned.
Several residents praised ADOT and county workers for arriving to clean up the boulders on the highway during the Tuesday, Aug. 21, storm. “I was impressed. The rain hadn’t stopped and they came in. Thank you. We appreciate you,” one said, as the audience applauded.
Chuck Tidey, with the Chamber of Commerce, said he called the county on Wednesday, and got a call back Thursday setting up the community meeting for the following Wednesday. “The county cares about us and wants to know what the issues are.”
Peeples Valley residents also attended the meeting, although they did not suffer from the same flooding effects. “Since the fire, this community has changed a lot. They’ve really come together whether their property was damaged or not, because they realize it could have been them,” Donaldson said.
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